For most, the season conjures up images of water parks and ball games. After two crazy semesters, MBAs need a summer getaway like everyone else. But you won’t find them heading off to the Grand Canyon or Disneyland. Instead, their road trips will take 10 weeks minimum. Chances are, they’ll spend that time acting more like Alex Keaton than Jack Kerouac.
Yes, it’s summer internship time. While the world is lighting fireworks and roasting s’mores, MBA students will be poring over data and writing plans and presentations. Instead of pitching tents and dousing themselves with repellent, they’ll fend off creepy, crawly wildlife in their ratty apartments. Despite missing out on many summer joys, most MBAs will remember their internship as a turning point in their lives.
INTERNSHIPS ARE ABOUT MORE THAN LANDING A JOB
Come summer, there’s no rest for the weary MBAs. In fact, returning to work can be a surreal experience, as most interns had ditched high-powered jobs only a year earlier. Sure, earning a paycheck is a welcome change. But the questions remain: Why does a summer internship carry so much weight? And what makes this internship so different from their previous jobs?
Experts will tell you that internships are a chance to hone your skills and gain hands-on experience. And they’re right. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, MBA internships are more like sports tryouts…with a twist. True, MBAs are looking to ultimately land a roster spot. But using the summer months to get exposure and prove your value is only part of the equation. In fact, “a good intern is there to learn and not to impress,” according to Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
Sutton, who authored The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, worries that too many students enter their internships with a “show me, show me” attitude. In his experience, this self-centered approach, coupled with the usual preening, will actually hinder candidates’ odds of turning an internship into a full-time job.
So what should students be looking to accomplish with their internship? For starters, internships can help students stave off intellectual atrophy, offering an outlet for them to apply (and reinforce) what they’ve learned. Group projects, a staple in most summer internships, connect students with similar passions. Best of all, internships are often designed for MBAs to ask questions and learn from their peers.
Even more, summer internships give students an inside peek at organizational culture. In doing so, students get a taste for how things really get done…and whether a culture fits their values. This is particularly critical to Sutton, who advises students to watch the people around them very closely. ”Organizations are very powerful,” Sutton tells Poets&Quants. “If you like what you see, it might be a place for you. If not, you risk becoming like those you dislike.”
Internships are still a proving ground where students can deepen their networks. But they’re also a place to try a particular role on for size. In doing so, students can learn what to expect so they can answer the proverbial question: “Is this the right move for me?” Either way, their internship experience will make them confident in their choices or force them back to the drawing board (while there’s still time to find a new path).
INTERNSHIPS ALLOW EMPLOYERS TO ‘TEST DRIVE’ CANDIDATES
Alas, internships are a two-way street. For employers, an internship represents an intensive job interview, a 90-day free trial, with no risk or commitment. With the best candidates, internships shorten the learning curve, allowing next year’s hires to get up to speed faster. What’s more, companies can learn from the best-and-the-brightest students, feeding off their energy and raising the tempo (and the bar) for their other employees.
For employers, the resume meets reality during an internship. And candidates are being evaluated the whole time, to see if they can accept direction, work in teams, dress and act the part, adopt cultural mores, and offer a high ceiling. Most important, employers want interns who embrace their assignments. As Sutton notes, “A lot of times what looks like shit work are the best learning experiences.”
In the end, candidates will be judged on how they approached their jobs and how likable they were as much as what they achieved. For employers, a small investment in an internship now saves a lot of cost and heartache later.
(See next page for Jack Welch’s advice to MBAs)